Teo Leyasmeyer

Teo Leyasmeyer
Pianist Invigorated Local Blues Scene

By Bryan Marquard
May 2006

Think of the blues, and Latvian immigrants don't immediately come to mind.

And yet, some of the best moments in Boston's blues history were due to Teo Leyasmeyer, who was playing scales on the piano as a child when he heard music his brother had discovered floating through their Philadelphia home.

Their parents had fled from Latvia to Germany after World War II and then to Philadelphia, where his older brother was “a scrawny little stranger in a strange land,” scrambling to adjust when he discovered the city's public library and its record collection.

“Here I was, an immigrant kid playing Southern blues records,” said Archibald Leyasmeyer of Hastings, Minn. “Teo was taking piano lessons, and I would play records, and it was the blues records that really turned him on.”

“While it was different and dangerously exciting, I remember also instinctively feeling that it was somehow familiar and identifying with it, knowing that something within you corresponds to that sweet-sad sound you're hearing,” Teo Leyasmeyer told interviewer Art Simis several years ago.

An accomplished pianist, Mr. Leyasmeyer booked acts for a decade at the House of Blues in Harvard Square, turning the 200-capacity club into arguably the most important blues venue in the region. His devotion to the music drew major artists who usually wouldn't play for such a small crowd, and he gave lesser-knowns a boost by bringing them to what became a premier club. He also took care of many aging bluesmen, letting them gig, buying them meals, and quietly tucking $50 in their pockets.

Mr. Leyasmeyer was 59 when he died of liver cancer Tuesday, only a few days after learning that a lingering malaise was actually a serious illness. He had lived with his family in Lexington, though his soul was equally at home in Southern shacks where he sought out musicians who played and lived the blues.

“He became one of the anchors of the blues in the Northeast. And he never had an attitude; he always put the blues first,” said James Montgomery, whose band played the House of Blues.

Mr. Leyasmeyer “was a great player,” Montgomery said. “He played with B.B. King, and you can't get that gig if you can't play.”

Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band said Mr. Leyasmeyer was “one of the passionate blues fans in the area.”

“We were all members of the same club, and we all shared the same passion for blues artists,” Wolf said.

“That cat was straight up,” said musician Taj Mahal, “always looking forward and always taking care of business.”

Teofils Leyasmeyer was born in Kempton, Germany, and was a toddler when his family moved to the United States. His father hoped that his younger son might have a calling for the ministry. Mr. Leyasmeyer graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia and attended a few seminaries before turning full time to performing, ending up in Boston in the early 1970s.

He played at Paul's Mall, the Jazz Workshop, and Joe's Place in Cambridge, sitting in and honing his keyboard chops. He moved to Texas in the mid-1970s, touring with Freddie King's band and later playing with other bands such as those of Big Joe Turner, Koko Taylor, and Junior Wells.

Hege Leyasmeyer said she met Teo in the 1980s when he was back in Boston and supplementing his music income by selling health club memberships. She handed him her driver's license while registering; he noted that they shared the same birthday, Jan. 11, 11 years apart.

“I said, 'What is this, a pick-up line?' ” she recalled with a chuckle. He pulled out his own license to assuage her suspicions. They were married in 1987 and had been a couple for 21 years.

She followed Mr. Leyasmeyer when he moved in the mid-1980s to New York City, where he booked acts for the Abilene Cafe.

“He got big acts to play a small room, which was sort of his signature,” his wife said, “because when he went to House of Blues, that's what he created there.”

In the early 1990s, he returned to Boston and became the booking agent for the House of Blues. Dwarfed by 1,400-capacity rooms at House of Blues franchises in Chicago and Los Angeles, the Cambridge club instead offered acts that were truer to its name.

“In LA, you couldn't do blues every night and expect to fill the room. You have to do other things,” Mr. Leyasmeyer told the Globe in 1995. “Here, you have the opportunity to do more blues.”

The list of acts he booked reads like a who's who of the genre: John Hammond, Dr. John, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Otis Rush, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Johnny Winter.

“I've got the freedom, the sanction, and the protection, as opposed to pressure, to keep doing the blues,” Mr. Leyasmeyer said in 1997.

And he continued to lend his keyboard talents to those in the constellation of blues legends, including John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Johnny Clyde Copeland, and Buddy Guy.

“It was always about the music for him,” his wife said. “His whole philosophy was, you make the musicians comfortable, and it's all going to come back with the way they perform.”

The Blues Foundation in Memphis gave Mr. Leyasmeyer its Keeping the Blues Alive award in 1997 as promoter of the year.

“Teo wanted to respect and preserve the blues for what it was, or is,” his brother said.

In 2003, the House of Blues replaced Mr. Leyasmeyer, much to the dismay of many area blues fans. For his family, the silver lining was the additional time he could spend with his daughters Lena and Lily.

“He appreciated every moment,” his wife said. “The man had worked 16 hours a day. When that ended, he got to work at home, and we became an everyday family, sitting down to meals.”

Though he still booked the Boston Harbor Hotel Blues Barge series, he could also spend more time playing.

“He used to always say that music was a surrender, that you had to commit your whole body and mind and spirit to it,” said his friend and musical colleague, Jeff Pitchell.

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